Why Michael Thomas Is the Most Efficient Receiver in Football

Brace Hemmelgarn / USA TODAY Sports

Michael Thomas was the 6th wide receiver selected in the 2016 NFL Draft. Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell, and Sterling Shepard were all off the board before the Saints selected Thomas in the second-round.

Calling the pick a steal would be an understatement.

Over the last two years, Thomas has cemented his status as one of the league’s premier pass-catchers. At the age of 25, Thomas has already set Saints single-season records for receptions and receiving yards. His 2018 catch rate of 85.0% is an NFL single-season record. Through their first three seasons, nobody has caught more passes than Michael Thomas has.

There have been plenty of great receivers in New Orleans Saints history. After all, Joe Horn was a legend and Marques Colston certainly deserved to be a Pro Bowler. Still, none of them have ever played at the level of Michael Thomas this season. Thomas is on pace to eclipse them all by the end of his career.

Earlier this year, Thomas was named to the NFC Pro Bowl roster for the second time in his short career. He may very well end up on an All-Pro team at the end of this season — a feat no Saints receiver has ever accomplished. It would certainly be well-deserved. No matter how you look at it, Michael Thomas has been as good as any wide receiver in the NFL this season.

He’s continuing to prove that you can’t guard Mike.

Cushion and Separation

Usually, the New Orleans Saints pride themselves on having plenty of reliable pass-catchers. In 2009, seven Saints players had at least 30 receptions. This year, only three do — Ben Watson, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas. Only Thomas is a wide receiver. The second leading wide receiver on the team is Tre’Quan Smith, who has 28 catches for 427 yards this year.

Simply put, Michael Thomas has been carrying the load for the New Orleans Saints’ passing game. Teams know that the ball is going to go to him. Yet, he’s still been able to get open and catch the ball at an unprecedented rate.

 Average CushionAverage SeparationCatch Percentage
Julio Jones5.72.566.5%
DeAndre Hopkins4.92.570.6%
Mike Evans5.72.161.9%
Tyreek Hill5.93.163.5%
JuJu Smith-Schuster5.33.066.7%
Michael Thomas4.62.785.0%

Cushion refers to the distance in yards between the receiver and the defender before the play starts. Tyreek Hill is unsurprisingly given the most cushion because defenders have to worry about his lightning speed. This makes it easier for Hill, though. While he’ll have a harder time getting behind the defense on a go-route, he’s able to easily get open on other routes because of the space he’s given.

Separation refers to the distance in yards between the receiver and the nearest defender at the time of the completion or incompletion. A receiver with less separation is likely to be a lesser route runner. Mike Evans is an elite receiver, but his ability to get open isn’t special. He’s given 5.7 yards of cushion yet his average separation is by far the least on the list.

However, out of the NFL’s six top receivers this year, Michael Thomas, is given the least cushion before the play. Nevertheless, he’s able to gain more separation than receivers like Julio Jones, who is given 1.1 more yards of cushion.

Thomas is lined up in the slot against All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters. Peters is giving him zero cushion. Thomas begins a slant to the inside and then quickly turns around to the outside. This move effectively fakes out Peters, freeing Thomas up for the reception. After the catch, Thomas runs for another 10 yards, gaining the first down and more.

Thomas’ catch percentage is unrivaled. Of course, nobody can reel in 85.0% of their targets without making some extremely difficult throws. While Thomas’ route running is great, nobody is always able to get open. An NFL receiver needs to be able to make tough catches. Naturally, Can’t Guard Mike thrives in this department.

Peters is all over Thomas on this play, but Drew Brees gives him a chance. Time and time again, Thomas proves that the faith that his quarterback has in him is warranted. This catch is unbelievably difficult to make.

Thomas’ versatility is insane — he’s usually able to get open despite cornerbacks pressing him more often than other elite receivers. And when he’s not able to get open, he makes incredibly difficult catches.

Yards After the Catch

Unlike many other big-bodied receivers, Thomas is a major threat after he makes a reception.

Thomas once again exhibits elite route running by getting enough space to bring in this short pass. However, he makes the reception just two yards past the line of scrimmage. He’s somehow able to shake off two tackles and trudge forward for a crucial first down.

Next Gen Stats determines the expected yards after catch for every reception. If a player gets behind the entire defense and catches the ball, they’re obviously expected to get a touchdown. However, on this previous play by Thomas, the expectation wouldn’t be to get a first down. Therefore, the average YAC above expectation is the most useful indicator for this skill.

 Average Yards After the Catch Above Expectation
Tyreek Hill1.2
Michael Thomas0.5
Mike Evans0.3
JuJu Smith-Schuster0.3
Julio Jones0.2
DeAndre Hopkins-0.5

Out of the top receivers this season, only Tyreek Hill has been better after the catch than Thomas. This is hardly surprising. Over the past three years, the two fastest recorded speeds in the NFL were all attributed to Hill. Thomas ranking 2nd within elite company like this is fairly impressive.

Efficiency

Due to his extremely efficient catch rate and his ability to get yards after the catch, it’s no surprise that Thomas dominates receiving efficiency metrics. The most popular of which is Receiver Air Conversion Ratio. According to its creator, Josh Hermsmeyer, RACR is an efficiency metric that rolls up catch rate and yards after the catch into one number. It can also be thought of as the number of receiving yards a player creates for every air yard thrown at him.

This new efficiency metric began to be recorded in 2009. Thomas’ RACR this year is among the highest among eligible receivers in this time span. Only six players had a RACR above 1.00 (meaning they create more than one receiving yard for every air yard thrown at him).

 YearReceiver Air Conversation Ratio
Wes Welker20111.20
Michael Thomas20181.16
Randall Cobb20141.13
Jordy Nelson20111.05
Demaryius Thomas20131.03

Over the past 10 seasons, approximately nine-hundred single-season receiver performances were eligible for this ranking. Michael Thomas’ 2018 campaign proved to be the 2nd most efficient, behind only Wes Welker in 2011 (who was a First-Team All-Pro).

Michael Thomas has simply been incredible. The scary thing is that he’s just beginning to enter his prime. He will go down as the greatest wide receiver in the history of the New Orleans Saints. If all goes according to plan, he’ll win a championship with them this year.